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The Star Ledger (2004)
Toni Collette on a satisfying road trip
January 17, 2004 | Written by Stephen Whitty
Sandy Edwards has it all figured out.

She lives alone, which means she lives as she likes. She's a geologist, which means that she's able to protect herself with data and samples. She was easily bruised, once, but she has made herself as invulnerable as the rocks she studies.

Then she's asked to take Tachibana Hiromitsu, a potential Japanese investor, on a road trip across the desert. And she realizes she has to refigure everything.

That's the set-up of "Japanese Story," a new small film from Australia, and it's a diverting premise. There's always plenty of opportunity for excitement in a road-trip movie, and a story with two such contrasting characters is perfect for comedy -- a "Lost in Translation" knockoff, only set on the backroads.

Thankfully, though, director Sue Brocks doesn't go for cheap thrills or easy laughs.

The closest thing the movie comes to adventure is when Sandy's Land Rover gets stuck in the sand. Although Hiromitsu finds Sandy's breakfast of eggs, sausage, bacon and baked beans a little unusual, the movie avoids the usual obvious culture-clash jokes and treats both characters with restrained respect.

Mostly, it's a film of small surprises. Hiromitsu, reserved even for a Japanese businessman, finds Sandy's loud chatter a bit of a shock. She -- all raw bones and rough hands -- marvels at his smooth, pale skin. Separately, they find each other a bit of a puzzle. Together, eventually, they marvel at what each can teach.

Gotaro Tsunashima, a stage actor from Japan, is quietly wonderful as Hiromitsu, communicating pages with glance (and, at one point, bursting into marvelous, literal leaps of joy). The dependable Toni Collette -- matter-of-factly miraculous in every part she plays -- is even better as Sandy, particularly as the story requires her to unleash some powerful, long bottled-up emotions.

Exactly what those emotions are should remain a secret; "Japanese Story" has a hugely jarring surprise in its second act, which sets the movie on a separate course. In a way, the surprise is too big for the movie and knocks things slightly off balance. It's as if this gently quiet road movie had suddenly swerved off a small country route to jump into a six-lane highway.

Yet this detour also gives us a chance to know Sandy better and see her change. And wonder at the natural forces, far greater than any earthquake, that can force even a cold geologist to finally step from her cave.